Robin

About Robin

Occasional painter. Golfer. Fascinated by humanity. Passionate about beautiful stuff, the people who create it and its narrative.

Meeting Mike Howell

Tasman Golf Club, Nelson, New Zealand. It is pretty and quiet. I put $20 for my round in the “honesty box.” The sun is shining. I stand on the first tee. I am greeted by a fine view over the bay. All is well in the world. I hear a car pull up. Another golfer. “Fancy a round?” Friendly voice. Good bloke, I reckon. “Great idea!” I say.  “Mike Howell” he says. Firm handshake.

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By the first green, we have established the basics of the who, what, when and where of our respective lives. By the second, I have learnt that Mike is no ordinary golfer; he is also painter, sculpter, teacher, writer, illustrator, scientist, conservationist, fisherman, hunter, traveller, grandfather and the golf club’s Mr Fix-it. I tell him of my brief foray into painting and Talking Beautiful Stuff and how I don’t like the word art because I can’t define art and how I hate artspeak. His spine stiffens slightly; he turns to look at me anew. It’s like a gundog that’s caught a new scent. I see I have stepped into his professional domain.

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Mike’s entire home is his studio. It is hung about with beautiful stuff. I ask about what, at first sight, looks like a mixed-media collage of sticks and shells on a blue background. Some minutes later, I understand this is his tribute to the skills of the polynesian seafarers of yesteryear. For centuries, pacific islanders have paddled huge distances using for navigation aids only the night sky (the geographically arranged shells: note the two shells at the bottom doubling as New Zealand,) wave charts that record changes in the ocean swell thrown up by islands and reefs (the sticks) and the direction of flight of migratory birds such as godwits (the black twines.) These elements all come together in a pleasing and intriguing whole. I ask Mike about other paintings that could be described as “maori.” I realise that I have touched on what really floats his boat. He is professionally passionate about image-making as a means of education and keeping traditions alive among cultures that do not have a written history. He believes firmly that all children should be aware of the artistic heritage of their society and, as a means to bridge cultures, that of other societies as well. I am in awe of his clarity of thought together with his commitment to and eloquence on the subject. “But I have to show you my latest thing,” he enthuses. “It’s a tokotoko!” Right !

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A tokotoko is a stick that a wise maori elder might lean on whilst talking of generations past and accompanying myths and legends. Anyone else holding the tokotoko has the authority to speak. This tokotoko is an exceptionally beautiful piece of work. It would be fitting for the most respected of elders. It is a driftwood sapling with roots that mike has meticulously carved and adorned to produce images of some of New Zealands iconic, rare or even extinct fauna. It is a hand-crafted lesson in the unique ecology of this country.

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Prominent on the shaft is a Tuatara. In evolutionary terms it is a very very old beast. The name derives from maori meaning “peaks on the back”. I turn the tokotoko in my hands.

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Top right I find a huia. It is now extinct. It was the largest of the New Zealand wattlebird species. It was a striking black songbird. Female and male huia had dramatically different bill sizes and shapes; this is thought to be the most extreme sexual bill dimorphism of any bird species. Underneath the huia there is a South Island kokako that is also believed to be extinct. However, occasional snippets of song and possible glimpses of the “Grey Ghost” continue to tantalise ornithologists. Lower on the shaft of Mike’s tokotoko there is a representation of one of the native giant kauri snails. These molluscs are carnivorous, cannabilistic and may live for up to twenty years. Some species are also declining in numbers. Nestling right next to the snail is the increasingly endangered lesser short-tailed bat (pekapeka-tou-poto.) It is, unusually, a terrestrial bat that forages on the forest floor. Top left is a long fin eel (tuna kuwharuwharu;) one of the largest eels in the world. Its potential lifespan is about one hundred years and is found only in the rivers and lakes here. It was an important food source for the maori.

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The last feature of the tokotoko that Mike draws my attention to is a small brown godwit in flight. This brings our conversation full circle back to navigation. Each year about 80,000 of New Zealand’s godwits fly to the Yellow Sea (between China and North Korea), then on to Alaska, and back again. Precisely how they achieve this extraordinary feat is not entirely understood but it is certain that phases of the moon and the positions of stars (also incorporated on the tokotoko) guide these extraordinary birds on their epic journey.

I struggle to digest the aesthetic and intellectual span of Mike’s work. He very successfully makes manifest his eclectic interests and passions via a wide variety of image-making techniques. I take my hat off to him. He is committed to promoting humanity’s capacity to create beautiful stuff for the benefit of cultural future of generations to come. Meeting him is an enriching experience. And to think that when I first met him, I reckoned he was just a good bloke!

Roger Pfund at Artvera’s Gallery

Talking Beautiful Stuff takes on the opening of the Roger Pfund exhibition at Artvera’s. The invitation bears his iconic 1980 design for the last 50 French franc note. We get to the gallery early, grab a glass of champagne and soak up the atmosphere of this very classy exhibition. Geneva’s great and good drift in. Roger Pfund, who has designed bank notes and passports, created the visual identity of museums and depicted the spirit of human rights, is now a sprightly 75 years old. He sits quietly surrounded by admirers. He remains the only person to be honoured during their own lifetime with a major retrospective at Geneva’s Museum of History and Art.

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Roger Pfund, Nijinsky Dancer, mixed media, 2005, 140cm x 104cm

For Roger Pfund, the “vertebral column” of his work has always been painting. I admire and adore his huge mixed media portrait of Vaslav Nijinsky based on a 1912 photograph by Adolf Meyer

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A hallmark of his work is the mastery of and versatility with a wide range of techniques and materials including, oil, acrylic, charcoal, collage, screen print and engraving. It’s all on show this evening.

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Roger Pfund, Droits de l’Homme (Human Rights,) mixed media, 2006,  700cm x 180cm

One of Pfund’s most celebrated works comprises eight separate framed pictures together bearing the words of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights along the outstretched arms – or wings – of a Nijinsky figure. There is something incredibly primitive about this image. It is as if the spirit of the great dancer, rather than being crucified, simply spreads its broad wings and takes flight as a result of his fundamental rights being respected.

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This is a vast work. To appreciate it, one needs a wide view……

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…… and a close up. Does this incorporated print technique allude to banknote design? And talking of banknotes, if you go to Artvera’s – and you should – before this exhibition closes on 7th April, just take note of the price tag on this one!!

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The basement is dedicated to Pfund’s banknote designs. They are printed in high definition on aluminium plate using subligraphie. The reproductions are protected by PhyGital (a merge of physical and digital technologies;) an authenticity certification system developed by a Swiss enterprise, Trueplus. Pride of place is given to an exquisite series of notes designed according to various European “époques and styles.” Each note is a masterpiece. In 1996, this series was awarded first prize by an international jury charged with finding a suitable design for the then-new Euro currency. Inevitably, European politics intervened and the second-placed design was finally chosen.

Roger Pfund at Artvera's Gallery 8

We leave the exhibition buzzing. If you’re in town, don’t miss this opportunity for a brush with soul-enriching genius.

Four Fabulous Women

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I think of my fab four for International Women’s Day. I trawl the internet for suitable images. My intention is to write a brief glowing paragraph on each. I look at my chosen images. I reflect on the awful truth: Malala, shot by men.

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Simona, abused by a man.

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Marilyn, adored by men – and maybe adored to an early death. Her dignity abused after death.

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Ellen, imprisoned by men. Went on to become the first female leader of an African country.

I’m not feeling great about the collective Y chromosome thing. I extend my search. I reflect on the extent to which the lives of famous women been adversely affected or even determined by violent men or men with power or authority? (And then why should I focus only on famous women??) I go to Google, type in “famous women” and then hit “Images.” Google’s powerful algorithms make the case. Spot the odd one out!

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Perhaps 7th March should be the International Day for Men to Reflect on International Women’s Day?

Art Geneva 2018 by the Lakeside

Art Geneva 2018 has come and gone. What remains is a series of sculptures selected for the lakeside extension of this ever-growing art fare. I think this is the best part of the whole show. I love it. Big, bold public sculpture in an ideal setting. There’s just one problem. It’s minus 6 degrees by the lake today. The wind barrelling down from Lausanne makes it colder still. Wave-made icicles hang off “no swimming” signs (!) and mooring ropes. Only a few hardy dog-walkers and I are out and about. Somehow, the sculptures stand immune to and united against the blistering cold.

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Gonzalo Lebrija “Cubo Torcido” Polyurethane paint on steel, 2017

Gonzalo Lebrija’s twisted cube sits on a neat and clean base. It is itself a neat and clean structure. The smooth worked steel makes for blade-like lines. I run my numb thumb down it’s frozen edges. The proportions and feel are pleasing.

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Anthony Gormley “Big Take” Forged iron, 2014

O frabjous day! An Anthony Gormley. Somehow, someone from Art Geneva has managed to snag from somewhere and install here a work by the master of forged iron big public sculpture. I walk around it. No clean base this time but some carefully laid turf. Were it not for the temperature, I would sit by it for an hour or so and simply admire its balanced cuboid proportions. It makes me happy.

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Barry Flanagan “Large monument” Bronze, 1996

My third choice is Barry Flanagan’s “Large monument”. The name doesn’t help understand what passed through the sculpter’s mind in the creative process. Maybe this builds on the intrigue. I am sure there is a reference to some otherworld fantasy. (It reminds me of Paul Dibbles very real-world “Calici scythe“) Three happy rabbitoid figures prance and dance atop a tall, rough, solidly-sitting throne-like thingummyjig. A fourth figure sits pensively as though he/she/it is bored with the prance-dance. The reason I admire it is that whilst it is certainly a “large monument,” I can’t see Mr Flanagan taking the necessary work terribly seriously. I think he just had fun.

If you can’t brave the cold now wait a week or so for a slightly warmer Geneva lakeside to take in these sculptures. Individually and collectively, they are immensely gratifying.

The Surroundings of Niura Bellavinha

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Niura Bellavinha with Lusco Fusco (Fluidos e Fixos,) 2015 Acrylic and oil on canvas 130cm x 230cm

Once again, Espace L  brings a fragment of Brazilian creative culture to down-town Geneva. The gallery’s new exhibition “Alentours” (Surroundings) opens this weekend. It’s worth checking out. The main act is the work of Niura Bellavinha. I meet her fresh from the airport. What she has brought with her awaits hanging; she takes me on a tour.

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Infiltração (Fluidos e Fixos,) 2010 Acrylic and oil on canvas 50cm x 39cm

An explanation of the technique behind her trademark, almost tartan-like, canvases gets lost in our Portufranglais translation. What I gather is that bold red paint running over delicate muted blue rectangles is achieved in part by infiltration of a heavy liquid layer of paint applied to the reverse of the canvas and allowed to permeate through. The technique is as intriguing as Niura herself; she tells me that this represents her personal surroundings.

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iTaLíTica_NháNhá, 2016 Acrylic and oil on canvas 100cm x 100cm

She becomes animated when she discusses her destructively mined home state of Minas Gerais. The rich red-brown pigment in the canvases representing her environmental surroundings is back-yard dust. She tells me of the importance of using the oldest and most basic pigments possible; the now familiar understated mineral blue is zirconium extracted from meteorites (Wow!)

The most intriguing (and the most difficult to photograph!) is a combined work representing Niura’s cosmic surroundings. Photographs of constellations taken by the Hubble telescope are juxtaposed with beautiful little dark canvases painted with ground meteorite. They glitter infinitely.

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Articulado Guignard, 2010 Multimedia

Niura is intense, other-worldly and mystical. She hands me a sumptuous book of her complete works that makes manifest her extensive career, imagination and talent. Espace L has done well to capture some fragments of her surroundings. Meeting her is a unique experience and, if I am honest, I leave the gallery a little bit in love with such an unchained spirit.